Tag-Archive for ◊ world literature ◊

Author:
• Friday, June 14th, 2013

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, from a middle class family. His father was a musicologist and a pianist. Milan learned to play the piano from his father and later studied musicology and musical composition.

Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague for two terms, before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and script writing. He graduated in 1952 and worked as lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later, for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However he rejoined the party again in 1956 and was discharged once more in the seventies.

Kundera’s works were banned and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Kundera and his wife left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

He has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in 1987 won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his own home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”, says the long exiled Kundera at the beginning of his philosophical novel Ignorance. This sentence sets the main themes of the book which are: emigration, nostalgia, the longing for homecoming and the indifference that follows once back home as well as the deliberation on recollection and about human fallibility, creating a state of amnesia and ignorance. These are topics understandably close to the author’s heart, emigration being a first-hand experience for him.

Pregnant Irena, her husband Martin and their young daughter, leave their homeland, Czechoslovakia in 1969, one year after the Russian invasion, to seek refuge in Paris.

After twenty years of exile, Irena is now a mother of two daughters and a widow. With her new Swedish companion Gustaf, they decide to go back and live in the post-communist Czech Republic.
At Paris airport, while waiting for the Prague flight, her path crosses Josef – a short time heart-throb from adolescent days. He is also by coincidence, returning to his country for a brief visit after his wife’s death and twenty years of exile in Denmark.

The two uprooted protagonists, once back home after a long absence, are disillusioned to find their past forever gone. They don’t know how to pick up the threads. They come back to a completely transformed country from the one they remember, which no longer exists except in their own memories. They feel estranged in their native land among their compatriots and their families with whom they no longer have anything in common. They suffer through loss of identity as well as solitude for not fitting in with others.

Irena and Josef’ feel that their families and friends ignore them, as well as showing no interest in their lives in exile during the past twenty years. Irena, once in Prague, invites her friends and offers them an expensive French 1985 vintage Bordeaux wine but her friends who wanted “to teach (her) a lesson in patriotism” ask to drink beer instead. Irena believes that “rejecting the wine was rejecting her. She, as the person she is now, coming back after so many years…Either she succeeds in being among them as the person she has become, or else she won’t stay” because with their aloofness and disinterest in all she has been through abroad, they are erasing twenty years of her life.

Irena, on reflection, decides that her once beloved Prague of the old days is now completely alien to her. That is when she realises with assertion that she is more mature and wants to lead a life of her own and not stay in this city as it stands now. Her apprehension for the “Great Return” to the post-communist Czech Republic, occurs at the beginning of the book during her conversation with Parisian friend, Sylvie, who encourages her to go back home and reconnect with her past. After a short visit to Prague, Irena’s presentiment is proven to be correct – she no longer belongs to this new country.

Josef also feels the same as Irena and decides to go back to Denmark to continue living true to the memory of his deceased beloved wife. He was convinced after the disappointing visit to his older brother and his wife, followed by the visit to N., a Czech friend from forty years ago. To his surprise and sorrow, he discovers that neither his friend N. nor his wife are interested in his life and experiences during all his long years abroad. Josef discovers that even his mother tongue has become unfamiliar to his ears, as if it was “some unknown language”. He wonders what happened to Czech during these last two decades while he was away.

Just like Odysseus when he came back home after being tortured by his nostalgia and was eager to return to his beloved Ithaca after his long absence. To his great astonishment and affliction, he discovers “that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca, in the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost and could retrieve only by telling about it”.

The several themes meditated, philosophically analysed at length and historically paralleled with Odysseus in the Odyssey, plus the inclusion of the Czech poet Jan Skacel, the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg and the German writer,Thomas Mann, override the development of the one dimensional characters in the book. Kundera mentioned once during an interview, that the “unity” of a book can depend on its theme rather than on its plot.

The double erotic scenes at the end of the novel – between Irena and Josef on one side and her mother with Gustaf on the other, don’t enhance the story. They are gaudy and anticlimactic. They belittle the seriousness of the matters raised in the book, despite what the author says in one of his interviews that:“the erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located”.

A very emotional, short, concentrated and thought provoking book. It analyses human weaknesses and therefore problems that touch many people today. These problems are unlikely to change because they have been with us since the dawn of time. Throughout the centuries, people have been pushed to emigration and homecoming with all that it entails.

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Author:
• Friday, February 24th, 2012

Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokastër in Southern Albania in 1936, into a non-religious family. His father was a civil servant and his mother was from a wealthy family. He went to primary and secondary school in Gjirokastër followed by language studies at the University of Tirana in the faculty of history and philology where he obtained a teaching diploma in 1956. He continued his studies at the Maxim Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow until 1960.

Kadare was a member of the Albanian parliament from 1970 to 1982, but after some strife with the authorities in 1975 over a politically satirical poem, he was not allowed to publish any of his work for three years. He was also accused by the president of the league of Albanian Writers and Artists of intentionally avoiding to write about politics by writing mainly about history and myths. This was missing the point that Kadare preferred to use these means as an allegory to tackle the current political issues without fearing the repercussions.

Kadare, who is an eminent figure in Albania since the sixties, sought and obtained asylum in France before the fall of communism in his country. He stated at the time that: “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible…The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship”. Since 1990 he lives both in Paris and Tirana.

Kadare is a prolific writer. His first collection of poetry was published in 1954 and his first novel, The General of the Dead Army, was published in 1963. He has also written essays and short stories.

His most recent book, Ghost Rider, was published in 2011 and his novels have been published in more than forty countries. In 1992 he won the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and in 1998 he was the first Albanian to be presented with the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur. In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 he won the Prince of Asturia Award of Arts. He has frequently been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In Albania The Siege was first called The Drums of Rain, (the title later given to the French edition) but was at last published in 1970 in Albanian under the title The Castle, at a time when Albania was still under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. The English version, called The Siege, was published in 2009.

The story which takes place in the early fifteenth century, is of an imaginary siege of an unknown Albanian fortress besieged by the Ottoman Turkish army during the time of George Castrioti. Historically, George Castrioti, known as Skanderbeg, meaning Lord Alexander or Iskander Bey by the Turks, has been the national Albanian hero who bravely fought the mighty Ottomans during the peek of their strength for more than twenty years, when they were the most feared army of the time. He stood as the fierce saviour of Christianity against Islam. It was the confrontation of two cultures and two different religious beliefs, the crescent against the cross, the nowadays so-called: “clash of civilisations”. The historical fact is that after Castrioti’s death in1468, Albania was defeated and became part of the Ottoman empire and is today a predominantly Muslim European Country.

In The Siege, Tursun Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman army, is commissioned to encircle the Albanian fortress which stands amidst fields, assail its people and subjugate them. His fate depends on the success of this mission. He’d better be successful or else commit suicide to make amends for his defeat. As the Quartermaster says to Saruxha: “If he doesn’t win this campaign, his star will dim for good… I am sure of it. If he is beaten, the best he can hope for is banishment for life. As for the worst… The Quartermaster drew a line with his forefinger under his throat”. Tursun Pasha never confronts Skanderberg whose presence is implied in various parts of the novel. He hardly appears in the arena but is acting behind the scenes through his fighters.

Before every new chapter, there are two pages narrating the viewpoint of the non-characterised besieged. Otherwise the whole story is related from the Turks’ angle by several characters, the nameless Quartermaster General in charge of the logistics, the engineer Saruxha, the architect Giaour, the credulous and nervous historian-chronicler Mevla Celebi, the poet Saddedin, the campaign doctor Sirri Selim and the Pasha’s harem who joined the campaign but whose members are kept confined to their tent and guarded by a eunuch.

The story of The Siege, published in 1970, seems to be meant by the author (and for those who can read between the lines) as an indirect representation of the difficult times the Albanians are going through. It was during the rule of the totalitarian, Enver Hoxha and the threat of the Soviet Russians, who were at Albania’s threshold in Czechoslovakia, during the cold war period.

The author, in his novel, describes masterfully and in great detail the brutality and bloodshed in wars, also all the intricacies of a campaign of this magnitude and all that it involves. He portrays with great authenticity the psychology of the invaders and the besieged in this war of attrition: the sustained attacks by the relentless Turkish army and the steadfastness of the stoic Albanians who will not be subdued.

Although it’s an historical fact that the Ottomans ended up conquering Albania, does that make victory perpetually on the side of the technologically advanced and the brutal? Not always according to the story, which goes against historically verified truth. The author wanted to prove an ambiguous point which is not clarified. Maybe out of patriotism and pride or implying that the Enver Hoxha regime, no matter how powerful, will come to an end one day.

The Siege is an engrossing novel, well written with a lot of food for thought, especially when looked upon from today’s perspective.